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Can we be too happy?

Dr Raj Persaud
Gresham Professor for Public  Understanding of Psychiatry and Consultant Psychiatrist at The Maudsley Hospital, London.
He is the author of the Motivated Mind - How to Get What You Want from Life, published by Bantam Press

Is it possible to be too happy? This may be an odd question given the high rates of depression and psychiatric illness around the world. Surely we should focus on supporting the miserable rather than fretting over those at the other end of the scale?

Yet a not very widely reported fact is that psychological research confirms that average levels of happiness are very high in most cultures. The question comes to mind at this particular moment following recent reports that patient satisfaction with the NHS is indeed at an all time high - not what you might have been led to believe following so many press reports as to how awful things are.

The question was also posed in the title of a recent paper "Are the very happy too happy?", published by a team of psychologists lead by Elisha Tarlow Friedman at The American University in Washington, DC, in the Journal of Happiness Studies.(1)

The question is important and has profound implications for social policy and those who work in the NHS as it begs the issue of what our long-term goal is. Can we continue to improve things in general so that public contentment continues to rise infinitely forevermore? Or should we get to a point where we realise that this is about "as good as it gets" and stop straining at the leash to squeeze ever more improvements out of ourselves or the "system"?

Nurses may want to think about how happy they are when being able to render their clients. Is it possible that a certain amount of grumbling discontent is inevitable among patients and staff? Is it possible that no matter how hard you work there will always be someone who is not satisfied? At what point should we give up trying to make everyone happy, particularly if this is at the expense of our own happiness?

Tarlow and her colleagues show that it is possible that excessive levels of happiness are associated with dysfunction psychologically. They suggest that one rough measure of excessive personal happiness is the average ratio of positive thoughts to negative thoughts in your mind over an extended time period. They come up with a figure of around three-quarters positive thoughts to one-quarter negative, or three to one, as indicative of pretty high or optimal happiness levels. But when the ratio reaches one negative thought for every nine positive ones, then they suggest that this be regarded as the cutoff point for excessive happiness.

The downsides of very high levels of happiness might include a tendency not to restrain oneself and speak one's mind too assertively, causing discomfort to those around us. We know those who are very happy, such as the mildly drunk, tend to lose their inhibitions and perhaps take too many risks. The researchers suggest that people who have a 100% positive self-image might find their self-confidence and positivism leave no space for humility or self-improvement.

What the authors omitted to consider, through politeness or because they are inhibited by their lower mood, is that the real problem with being too happy might be that it is unbearable for the rest of us more depressed people to take. Being too happy might therefore make you socially isolated in the longer run. It could be that we prefer relationships with those who are not clinically depressed but have a culturally acceptable level of self-doubt and need for reassurance and support from us.

If it is possible to be too happy, the question then becomes, what level of imperfection should we aim for in ourselves and our public services?

Reference

  1. Friedman ET, Schwartz RM, Haaga DAF. Are the very happy too happy? J Happiness Stud 2006;3:355-72.